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16 November 2009updated 27 Sep 2015 4:07am

The impact of “impact”

Stefan Collini on why academics shouldn't have to be salesmen

By Jonathan Derbyshire

Last month, I blogged about the establishment of the Research Excellence Framework (REF), which lays down the criteria for disbursement of research funding in British universities. One of those criteria concerns the likely “impact” of academic research. And, as I pointed out, the problem with this is that it’s hard to quantify the short-term impact of research in the humanities — or, for that matter, the purer regions of mathematics, say, or physics.

Those who work in the humanities, and who worry about all this, don’t dispute that their research should be expected to have an impact. It’s the kind of impact the REF stipulates that’s the problem. As Stefan Collini points out in a wonderful close reading of the REF’s guidelines in the TLS:

The document offers a “menu” of “impact indicators” that will be accepted: it runs to 37 bullet points. Nearly all of these refer to “creating new businesses”, “commercialising new products or processes”, attracting “R&D investment from global business”, informing “public policymaking” or improving “public services”, improving “patient care or health outcomes”, and improving “social welfare, social cohesion or national security” (a particularly bizarre grouping). Only five of the bullet points are grouped under the heading “Cultural enrichment”. These include such things as “increased levels of public engagement with science and research (for example, as measured by surveys)” and “changes to public attitudes to science (for example, as measured by surveys)”. The final bullet point is headed “Other quality of life benefits”: in this case, uniquely, no examples are provided. The one line under this heading simply says “Please suggest what might also be included in this list”.

Collini points out that these requirements “shall be uniform across the whole span of academic disciplines” and that the “impact” requirement will itself have a “disastrous impact” on the humanities. He’s right. Read the whole thing, as they say.

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